A new generation of Alpha Dads is done being office slaves. Is it possible that men are better than women at solving the work-life dilemma?

By Sheelah Kolhatkar

Photograph by Jamie Chung

“‘Work-life balance’ is one of these terms that tends to get overused,” says Rob Lanoue, a partner with Deloitte’s consulting group in Toronto. “It’s ‘balanced/unbalanced,’” chips in colleague Andrew Hamer, a senior consultant. Lanoue, 43, in an open-collar shirt and sporting a wall clock-size dive watch, exudes a relaxed jock vibe, while Hamer, 29, is more hunky corporate hipster, with a beard, jeans, and checked blazer. They, along with Jonathan Magder, 35, a slender, mellow-voiced manager in Deloitte’s corporate strategy group, are eating breakfast across the street from their office, spearing eggs and discussing how they juggle their careers and families. In its contours, the conversation happens countless times a day among groups of women. This male version also touches on the challenges of getting home for bath time, showing up at recitals, and how all that must be reconciled with driving ambition. The only thing missing is the guilt and self-flagellation, which, if they were women, would be accumulating on the floor in puddles around their feet. You might call them “Alpha Dads,” guys who are as serious about their parenting as they are about making partner. What they illustrate is that men might actually be better at handling women’s issues than women. They don’t believe in “balance.” They believe in getting what they want, even if it’s time to yell at their 5-year-olds from the sidelines of a soccer game on a Wednesday afternoon.

Together, Lanoue, Hamer, and Magder run a group called Deloitte Dads, which aims to help working fathers. “New dads can be their own worst enemies,” Magder says. “The biggest thing for sure is time management.” One of his friends at another company tried to take a longer-than-average paternity leave after his first child was born, only to be told by his bosses that they were surprised he wanted to do it — surely his wife would be home, no? His friend wimped out on taking extra time off. For that reason, these guys believe, it’s important for them to live what they preach as much as possible. Magder’s wife doesn’t work, which may afford him a little more breathing room, but both Lanoue and Hamer are married to full-time professionals. None of them have illusions of achieving perfect harmony.

Lanoue, who became partner in 2010, has two children in school full time, a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old, and he estimates that he works one day a week out of his basement office at home, partly to spend more time with them. He manages this, he says, by “being proactive with my calendar, weeks out,” planning his schedule meticulously, moving in-person meetings to conference calls when he needs to and being blunt and in-your-face about it. Even when he’s in the office, he sometimes has to leave at 3:30 p.m. to drive his son to his hockey games, a fact he broadcasts to help dispel the stink that can trail people when they sneak out early. “Everyone knows my routine when I’m not there,” he says. “Between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., I’m available by e-mail. If there’s anything I have to review, it’s well into the evening.” In other words: It’ll get done, but on his time.

Hamer has a 2-year-old who goes to day care and a 12-week-old who’s currently not sleeping — he sports the dark eye-circles to prove it — and at the moment his assignment takes him out of town three nights most weeks to work at a client’s office. “For me,” he says, “flexibility is more about being able to take part in morning routines and not having to worry about the commute.” Magder has three children, ages 6, 4, and 2. He tries to be home at least two or three times a week for dinner and bedtime. Sometimes it’s tough, he says, recalling one period when he was working 80 or 90 hours every week and was desperately short on sleep. But, “most people understand that if I leave for the day, I’m just changing my [work] location.” Magder and his colleagues sound in many ways like typical MBA guys, only they’re applying the principles of efficient management to the task of parenting.

The Deloitte Dads were inspired to organize by the Deloitte mothers group, called Career Moms, which was launched in 2007 by Anushka Grant, a consultant who has three children of her own. Career Moms proved to be hugely popular and now has four chapters across Canada; it arranges networking opportunities for the firm’s working mothers and distributes a 20-page “survival guide” that puts to shame the maternity-leave advice buried in most companies’ HR handbooks. Hamer pitched the dad’s equivalent to the firm’s management in 2010 on the basis that highlighting the company’s friendliness to working fathers would help recruit and retain the best employees. “It was a business case,” he says. “I presented factual arguments around why it’s actually accretive to the firm to do this.”

After the Globe and Mail newspaper published an article about them in March, Deloitte’s chief diversity officer started getting calls from other companies wanting to learn how to do the same thing. “Welcome to Deloitte Dads, the Fraternity of Paternity,” reads one of their leaflets, followed by a quote from President Obama from Father’s Day, 2009: “I know I have been an imperfect father. I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood.”

Their group found an especially friendly audience because Deloitte’s consulting arm has an “entrepreneurial, performance culture,” as Hamer puts it; the pace is demanding, and employees are expected to manage themselves. “The culture is about the work,” Hamer adds. “It allows us to not have to be in at a certain hour for the sake of it.”

As a Lean In circle for guys, the Deloitte Dads lack their own demi-celebrity in the mold of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose best-selling book urges women to pursue their careers aggressively and not be put off by worries about how they’ll balance their work with their families. Sandberg touches on men and how important it is to choose the right one to procreate with — “She actually suggests that if men want children, they could also raise them!” says Gloria Steinem — but she’s primarily focused on women and what they can do to push their way further up the ranks of corporate America.

That’s a fine agenda for Sandberg’s book, but, asks Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who studies families and work, “Why do we continue to focus on this as a women’s issue, when the evidence makes it so clear that it’s shared by men?” Gerson adds: “The irony is there is some research that suggests men feel more conflict and have a greater desire for balance than women.” A March 2013 Pew Research study about modern parenthood found that nearly equal proportions of parents were twisted up in knots trying to “do it all.” Fifty percent of working fathers and 56 percent of working mothers found it “very” or “somewhat” difficult to balance work and family, according to Pew, while 48 percent of working fathers and 52 percent of working mothers responded that they’d prefer to be home with their children, but needed to work for the income. Men spend three times as much time with their children as their grandfathers did. Yet most employers haven’t acknowledged this shift.

The Deloitte Dads and their imitators reflect not only the demands of men to have more flexible schedules and be more involved parents, but also the increasing number of couples negotiating whose career will take priority. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of married-couple families in which both parents worked was 59 percent in 2012. And signs of changing priorities were evident as much as a dozen years back: A poll taken by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center in 2000 asking men and women in their twenties whether they would accept a lower salary to spend more time with their families found that 71 percent of the men answered yes, compared with 63 percent of the women. “If you listen to the best young male workers, the ones coming out of the top business schools, they all talk about wanting to be really involved fathers, expecting and assuming that their wives are going to be committed to their careers,” says Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University who consults with companies around issues of gender equality. “And then they get to the workplace and find the same things that the women are bumping up against.”

If this uprising has a guru-in-waiting, it’s Warren Farrell, a consultant and author of seven books, including The Myth of Male Power and Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap — and What Women Can Do About It. None of the Deloitte Dads have read him, but he’s been out there, complaining for four decades that men have been unfairly left out of the conversation about how to get ahead while being an equal parent. His has been a somewhat lonely crusade, although others have reached similar conclusions. Susan Faludi addressed this in her 2000 book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, a lament for traditional manhood and a society in which gender roles were more clearly defined that ginned up a huge amount of media attention: “Even in the world they supposedly own and run, men are at the mercy of cultural forces that disfigure their lives and destroy their chance at happiness.” More recently, Susan Jacoby noted in the New York Times that, “The cost to men — in terms of stress, time lost with the families they were trying so hard to support and lack of freedom to pursue personal interests — has not been nearly as well documented” as what women gave up in the traditional-marriage bargain.

To visit Farrell, you must leave San Francisco and its tech millionaires and drive north. Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge and several traffic jams of cars inching toward Muir Woods, you’ll come to a luxe-bohemian tree house filled with rugs and urns, with a babbling fountain in the front and giant redwoods every way you look. Here, Farrell sips Kombucha, nibbles kale chips, and holds forth on how undervalued and oppressed men actually are. Never mind that men have a monopoly over nearly every powerful institution in the world, control most of the planet’s wealth, and have a leg up in everything from the tax code to reproduction, Farrell believes they are prisoners of all that money and power they spend their lives amassing. It’s something they do, he says, because it’s expected of them.

“No one ever asks men, ‘Was that a good way to live life?’” he says. “And yet it’s very rare that a man on his deathbed says, ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’ It’s always, ‘I wish I spent more time with my family. I neglected my wife. I didn’t see my son’s baseball games and recitals.’ These are the things that people are missing, but coming from a man it just sounds like whining.” He adds: “For women, work-life balance is an issue they’re struggling with consciously. For men, this is life as it’s always been.”

Farrell, an ageless 69, has a trim white beard, twinkly eyes, and a speaking voice that seems carefully calibrated to sound nonthreatening even as he advances maddening oversimplifications of complex phenomena such as the gender wage gap, which he attributes largely to women’s decisions to pursue more fulfilling careers. Every so often something pops out of his mouth that prompts one to wonder if he actually said it, such as the suggestion that women arguing for equal treatment at work without taking the male point of view into account is like “men saying that women have to have sex at least three times a week with their husbands ... that’s the type of thing that’s happening now in reverse.” He and his wife, Liz, who runs her own health-care PR firm, live out a Marin County embodiment of his philosophy. They both work at home, and Farrell can often be found serving Liz coffee or lunch as she works — a chef comes in once a week and stocks the fridge with quinoa and seaweed salad.

Although he’s an inspirational figure to those who consider themselves part of the Men’s Rights Movement, or MRM, Farrell doesn’t like the idea of “men’s rights” so much. For one thing, not all men see a need for their own movement. The mere mention of the phrase in front of male professionals tends to prompt outbursts of laughter. Farrell prefers to talk about a “gender transition movement” in which both men and women learn to listen to each other better, as opposed to what he characterizes as women lecturing men about how they should be less piggish and take on more of the diaper-changing and dish-washing. And if he can sound like he’s stretching at times when talking about undervalued, put-upon males, he has a timely pitch for Sandberg’s acolytes: Women are more likely to get what they want out of their careers and family lives if they persuade men to acknowledge that they want the same things women do.

We’re primed for a cultural shift, Farrell says, in part because of these “bright young men,” as he calls them, “who are feeling that they want something more out of life than just climbing a ladder and getting money and then having divorces like their fathers did, and then having broken homes where they neglect their children — the Cat’s in the Cradle type of existence.” They have their work cut out for them: Company human resources departments are almost entirely focused on preventing lawsuits and addressing the needs of women and minority employees, albeit inadequately, he believes. Opening up the options to the guys is the inevitable next step, he says, one that the upcoming generation of ambitious male workers is demanding.

Roger Trombley, a research engineer at Ford Motor who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is just the sort of bright young man Farrell is talking about. When Trombley was expecting his first child, he and his wife, who also works at Ford, weren’t thrilled with the child-care options available, and she wasn’t eager to become a stay-at-home mother. Trombley remembered that a colleague from several years back had worked out a novel solution with her husband, with both taking part-time schedules to allow them to split the week up and each be home with their kids for half of it. Ford didn’t offer paternity leave, but it did offer a part-time track so long as an employee’s manager approved it. When baby Dylan arrived, Trombley went to his bosses and told them he wanted to drop down to 70 percent and work from home two days a week.

“Knowing there was potential backlash wasn’t going to change what I was doing,” Trombley says. “There was some nervousness. If I go on this, will it affect my performance reviews; how people view me at work; my potential to get promoted? But none of those concerns have come to fruition, at least in my situation. I’ve gotten great feedback.”

Initially, Trombley could get some work done on his Dylan-days, dealing with e-mail when his son was napping. “Once he stopped the nap it became a little trickier,” Trombley acknowledges. When Dylan was old enough — he’s now 3 — he started going to preschool a few hours a day, allowing his parents more time to dent their workloads on the days they were home with him. After school, Trombley takes Dylan to the park or the zoo. There are now three other men in his department with similar part-time setups; there were none when Trombley started. “Each and every one of them came to me and asked for recommendations on how to create the situation for themselves,” he says proudly.

Farrell believes that white-collar jobs, especially high-level ones, can and should be shared between two or even three people. It would ultimately be cheaper for a company to pay healthy but not exorbitant salaries to multiple people, he says, and they’d get more value for their money, with happier, higher-quality employees. In this spring’s Pew study, almost half of the fathers — 46 percent — said that they spent too little time with their kids, compared with 23 percent of the moms.

One thing men like Trombley have had to face is the perception that chilling out on their work was somehow failing the family — the word “provider,” after all, suggests the man comes home with his wallet full. Punitive as it may be to their professional advancement, NYU’s Gerson says, some women have the option of pulling back from work when they need to — at least no one is scandalized that they’re thinking about it. For most men it’s never even on the table, the dilemma that dare not speak its name. “Men feel a greater pressure to earn an income once children are born, to put in long hours at work, and not to jeopardize either their job or future career prospects,” Gerson says. “The penalties for pulling back, even slightly, to spend more time with their families have been intensified.” She attributes this to two trends in the economy, the increasing insecurity of employment for people across the class spectrum and the pressure to demonstrate one’s commitment to the company by putting in ever-increasing hours of face time, which runs counter to the freedom and flexibility that new technology makes possible.

Michael Dunn, an engineer who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia, has a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. In his old life he worked in the startup world, sometimes clocking 90 hours a week in entirely male environments. You would “work a full day, come home, eat dinner, take a nap on the floor, and then go back to the office until 2 a.m.,” he recalls. When he and his wife started their family, he made a series of moves that put him in a more moderate job with predictable hours, which allows him to help out in the mornings and be home most nights by 6 p.m. to relieve the babysitter. His wife can then keep up her career at her family’s real estate management firm. He agonizes over the trade-offs it has entailed, though, even as he makes plans to gear up again once his kids are a bit older. Dunn describes a trip he took with three friends to compete in a triathlon recently; the other three all have more hard-charging careers as investment bankers and executives with stay-at-home wives who take care of their kids. “I think they probably have progressed more in their careers than I have in some ways,” he says. “Part of it is psychological: I have to remind myself, I am not a second-class citizen.”

The idea that men are more fulfilled when they spend less time accumulating corporate pelts and more time roughhousing with their toddlers is generally still more mocked than celebrated. Even as advertisements for Tide, Wells Fargo, Yoplait, and others have caught on to the hands-on father as a consumer group, the “incompetent dad” remains a potent meme, with the wife often telling him what to do by text message or Post-it. A guy with an infant strapped to his chest is far more likely to be held up as a source of comedy than as a masculine ideal. The image of the Baby Bjorn dad as unhot and inept may have to change before more concrete things do. “Men have to feel valued and wanted for the balance of their skills,” as Farrell puts it. “People don’t invite the man who raised his children really well back to the 50th high school reunion to talk about it.”

Partly to counter this perception problem, Sweden, which has some of the most family-friendly policies in the world, funded an advertising campaign intended to encourage men to take advantage of the ample paternity leave benefits their state offers them (85 percent of Swedish fathers now do). The ads feature photographs of hunky men in various states of undress, including a well-known Swedish wrestler, cradling infants in their bulging arms.

Wives are now primary earners in 23 percent of U.S. married-couple households, according to Breadwinner Moms, a May 29 Pew Research study. The share of couples in which the husband outearns the wife has dropped 20 percent since 1960. “We’re now seeing more and more men who work around mom’s big job,” says Jessica DeGroot, founder of the Third Path Institute, a career-life integration think tank. “But nobody’s really changing the definition of the big job, just who is doing the big job.”

For now, at least, the Deloitte Dads are improvising a more daddy-friendly future in their own way. The day before we had a group phone call scheduled, Andrew Hamer sent an e-mail: “Folks,” it began, “Can I propose a slight change. I decided to work from home this morning so I could take my toddler to day care and help my wife with our newborn (have been on the road all week). May I suggest a conference call? Dial-in information below.”


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